Séan Mac Réamoinn



Dublin, Thursday, 24th September

This afternoon I attended a news conference in the Catholic Press and Information Office in Booterstown. The usual suspects from the media were there, but also the great and good Nuala Kernan and Maureen Groarke, chairman and secretary of the Irish Bishops' Commission for the Laity, with some of their colleagues — as indeed the occasion* demanded. For we had been summoned by Jim Cantwell, who runs the Office, to meet Cardinal Tomas O Fiaich, Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All Ireland, along with Bishop Cahal Daly of Down and Connor, prior to their setting out for Rome and the Seventh General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops, as representatives of the Irish Bishops' Conference.

The subject of the Synod is, as every altar boy (and girl) should know, The Vocation and Mission of the Laity in the Church and the World, twenty years after the Second Vatican Council. And it's due to begin a week from today, on 1st October.

Both cardinal and bishop were, as ever, friendly and helpful, but had little to add to their joint statement. The Irish written submission to the Synod is still, apparently, under wraps and, asked what they were going to say when they got there, they not unreasonably replied that they'd wait and hear what speakers before them say, in order to avoid the repetitive proclamation of agreed opinions, which can be such a wasteful and boring feature of such assemblies. But they would stress the need for partnership between bishops, priests and people; a stronger role for women; and urgent problems of social justice, which the laity could do much towards solving . . . Yes: the sixty non-episcopal 'auditors' (nearly all of them lay men and women) who are to attend the Synod could and would take part in the proceedings (but without voting powers). No: the one Irish name among them - Mr Patrick Fay of the Legion of Mary - had hot been chosen or proposed by the Irish Bishops, though the Cardinal had made another proposal . . . No: neither the Cardinal nor the bishop would be bringing 'advisers', lay or clerical, to Rome.

And that seemed to be that. Until a few minutes ago when I rang the office to check something, I learned that after I'd left Booterstown, the Cardinal announced quite informally that he was personally inviting Ms Kernan and Ms Groarke (the great and good previously mentioned). And a very good thing too. I hope they can accept: it did seem quite appalling that not even the executives of the bishops' own laity commission would be next or near an assembly called to discuss, of all things, the vocation and mission of the laity. The tact that the two individuals in question, who will now be there, however unofficially, are women is an added bonus. One up for the Cardinal!


A bit of good n^ws like that doesn't come amiss. For I must say that my own mood of mil<3 pessimism about the Synod seems to be shared by most of those interested enough to discuss it with me in recent times. Perhaps I know the wrong kind of people.

Or perhaps it's an illustration of the Irish maxim an md a theann i bhfad, teann se i bhfuaire (''What's prolonged grows cold.' ) The preliminaries for the Synod seem to have been going on for ever and things do feel a bit chilly. Back in 1985, a rather inadequate press notice asked for suggestions as a matter or urgency, but then most of us heard nothing for some months. It is no criticism of the Cardinal or Bishop Daly to take their statement that 'in preparation for the Synod extensive consultations were carried out in Ireland, at local, diocesan and national level' with perhaps just a very small grain of blessed salt. For while it is literally true that 'extensive consultations' were held here and there (not least, I understand, in the authors' own dioceses), it was a very spotty affair indeed. Even the efforts of the Laity Commission (to whom tribute is justly paid) were not enough to break through the widespread torpor. And, of course, some at least of the blame must be laid at the ghostly door of our non-existent consultative structures.

Not that the document on which consultation was to be based was of much help. This was known as the Lineamenta, a rather woolly confection of questions issued by the Synod secretariat to, in the first instance, the various episcopal conferences, but clearly intended for wider circulation - and equally clearly not very suitable for the purpose. As the Cardinal told us, he felt obliged to paraphrase it, and similar action was taken by other bishops - and, I understand, the Laitv Commission.

But however inadequate this working paper, and however limited the consultation, replies and comments did come in and were duly "processed'. To what extent they influenced or affected the Irish episcopal submission in reply to the Lineamenta, or indeed what was the content or thrust of that reply, can only be guessed at, as the bishops considered themselves strictly bound to secrecy — and, as has been indicated above, still do. An honourable proceeding, but not very encouraging to those not closely involved.


At this stage I must 'declare an interest'. In April 1986 a few of us here in Dublin felt should try to get more people thinking about the whole matter, on a country-wide basis; to bring those interested together to express their beliefs and opinions, and ultimately to publish these and bring them to the attention of the Synod itself.

A first one-day consultation of some fifty people, invited more or less at random from all over the country, encouraged us to go on. The second stage was the publication of a volume of essays, by lay and clerical writers, under the title of Pobal (from Pobal De, the traditional Gaelic name for God's People Ref Pobal: The Iaity in Ireland, ed. Mac Reamoinn, Columba Press, 1986.). As we said in the foreword, it was 'unashamedly a book with a message ... to the Irish Catholic Laity, in order to alert their interest in the Synod.' We pointed out that as things stood, the voice of the laity would be heard there 'only indirectly, if at all'. And, we added, 'the ideas and enactments of the Synod are unlikely to make any direct impact on ordinary Catholics'. The book was an attempt 'to do something about it'; it includes biblical and historical studies as well as reflections on the current scene.

As a follow-up, the hoped-for wider gathering of 'ordinary, interested Catholics' did eventually take place in March of this year. Over two hundred lay men and women, of varying ages and backgrounds, attended, some indeed representing their parishes. They came 'to think, to argue, to pray, to think again and finally to proclaim'. All this they did and what they heard and said and thought can be read in Lay People in the Church: Papers of the Pobal Conference. (Dominican Publications, Dublin, 1986).


Instrumentum Labons

That was six months ago. Since then nothing much has happened, in public any way. There have been a few pronouncements, by far the most interesting of which was an address given by Denis Carroll, Dublin curate and theologian, to a one-day conference organised by the Laity Commission. The conference was not open to the public, but enough of the address was reported to make one eager to read it. It will in fact be published before this Diary sees the light (Doctrine and Life, October 1987), so I'll say no more about it, though I may have a quote or two later.

But if Ireland has been inactive, the Synod secretariat has clearly been busy, because summer brought us the Instrumentum Laboris, the second discussion document, described officially as 'a kind of collection resulting from an analysis of the reflections, experiences, suggestions and proposals' made by those to whom the earlier Lmeamenta had been circulated - and, less officially, given the rather unkindly title of'Laborious Instrument'!

Unkindly, and not altogether fair. For while a bit stretched and windv in places, one should remember that it is a compilation, in which many minds and hands have had a part — indeed, as such, it is remarkably homogeneous in tone: and it does contain a lot of solid stuff.

Without access to the texts of the various submissions on which the document is said to be based, it is impossible to say whether all those consulted were remarkably united, not to say uniform, in their ideas on the subject. Or whether editing meant 'homogenisation' — involving, in some cases, simple suppression. I hope that the actual synodal discussions will reveal a livelier pluralism.

Certain statements seem, to say the least of it, rather odd. For instance:

Marriage gives a particular importance to the state in life of the majority of the laity. It indeed confers on the lay state a supernatural character which is not attainable in other states. . . Since the family is the domestic Church, then the intimate communio of life and love, the relationship of husband and wife, of paternity and maternity, of offspring and fellowship which are born in it, ought to become the aim of the laity's mission . . . (par 29)


The parish continues to be the usual place of participation by the laity in the Church's life and mission. In parishes they discover and constantly live their character as people of God . . . (par 57). The family is of decisive importance in the proper wellbeing of the person and for the soundness of the social framework. Through family life animated from the perspective of Christian holiness, the laity are able to transform daily life and render it more beneficial to the human person both in urban and rural areas, (par 65)

As I have noted elsewhere, of these propositions the second and third are arguable, but questionable in point of fact: the first I find hard to make any sense of. The best that can be said of it is that it represents a well-intentioned but confused attitude to the dignity of marriage, at the expense of other 'states of life'.

On the other hand, the document discusses a number of fundamental questions with perception and clarity: 'the distinction between vocation and mission'; 'the relation existing among the Church, the world, and the kingdom of God'; 'mission' and the 'mystery of evil'. And there are some splendid observations on a variety of matters:

The Church cannot be a partner to darkness . . . (par 21) The experience of living in modern society places many lay people under a tremendous tension between Christian values and the contra-values of the world. The result for them is two opposing temptations: to seek refuge in forms of religion without substance, constituting a flight from the world; or to reject the demands of Christian faith in order to conform to a worldly existence, (ibid)

A sceptical attitude to politics has no reasonable foundation among Christians, (par 69)

No area of human life or activity can be untouched by the Christian presence, (par 63)

In the mass-media field the laity must be defenders of freedom, respect for the dignity of the human person and the growth of an authentic culture of peoples . . . (par 68)

All well said, but one might ask why specify 'lay people' or 'laity' in the second and fifth of these quotations? Surely the 'tension between Christian values and the contra-values of the world' and the qualities needed in relation to the mass media apply to all Christians (except, possibly, some strictly enclosed religious)?


And so I come to my main problem with the Instrumentum and, indeed, with the Synod itself. I mean that 'clerical-lay' diochotomy or duality which seems to be close to the very core of pre-Synod thinking, as expressed in this paper, but also in many other documents and addresses, at home and abroad.

I am far from suggesting that this is something new, still less a synodal invention. To one brought up in the years between the wars, the two God-given classes of Irish society seemed to be clergy and laity. I can remember scores of reports in the local papers describing how some civic function, tabhairt amach, or bunfight 'attracted a large and distinguished attendance of clergy and laity'. The event in question was not at all necessarily of an ecclesiastical or religious nature . . . however secular the occasion, the two classes must be mentioned. In another time and another place, the reference might have been to 'nobility, gentry and' - perhaps - 'respectable tradesmen'! Indeed it is tempting to see the later usage as a substitute and successor . . . rather as calling a bishop 'My Lord!' seemed to satisfy an old hunger for forelock-touching. But I think it goes deeper than that: certainly the Gaelic usage cleir agus tuatb seems deeply rooted, and in no way dependent on what we like to call 'alien influences'.

On the other hand, I believe it is an over-simplification to equate 'clergy-laity' with 'priest and people'. The latter could clearly be seen as expressing an omnipresent social reality of function - as transparent as those involving the doctor, the teacher, the tailor, the blacksmith (and his successors). But 'priests' and 'clergy' were not quite co-terminous. Where, for instance, did nuns fit in, or Christian Brothers - or, for that matter, Protestant ministers whose role was not nearly as clear as their status?

For I'm afraid, in the heel of the hunt, status, class, caste, was and is what it's all about. And even today, perhaps especially today, it's very hard to convince people that in saying this you're not trying to subvert the idea of an ordained ministry. Of course, priesthood has always and everywhere constituted a class, usually a highly privileged one. The snag is that while Christians have, in history, been no exception to this rule, they should be! The systematic clericalisation of Orders seems to have derived mainly from the Church's close involvement with the Roman Empire, east and west, since the  fourth century: but the trend was already there, as were the models - both Jewish and Graeco-Roman.

A matter of status. And for a very long time now, a matter of legal status. The Code of Canon Law itself makes this explicit: 'By divine institution, among Christ's faithful there are in the Church sacred ministers, who in law (my italics) are also called clerics . . . (Can 207). No wonder then that clergy and ministry seem inseparable . . . Oh! and by the way, the Canon goes on to say '. . . the others are called lay people'.

So now we know. We are the 'others', an fuioll. Like the blacks in South Africa? Or all those who, in other times, were neither nobility nor gentry (nor respectable tradesmen). The people in fact. The common people.

And that of course is what we are, and — as they used |o say — proud of it! God's people . . . Pobal, populus, 'am, laos — and hence laity. But that should mean all of us, including the ordained. The priesthood of the laity is a great and noble doctrine, but I would suggest that equally important is the layhood of the priest, that membership of the laos of which his baptism is the sign and guarantee.

I know that I am beginning to repeat myself, but I am convinced that the point has to be made over and over again. The present position has no theological foundation, merely legal sanction: and while law is a great and formidable thing, the Church's law must be rooted in, and be consonant with, the Church's faith and teaching, and with the gospels which are its title deeds. I personally find it hard to see that putting the ordained into a class apart from, over against, and superior to the laos, the people as a whole, is so consonant. It rather seems to belong to that 'Gentile' way of doing things which Jesus specifically warned the disciples against (Mk 10: 42-45). One might well regard it as the first 'secularising' of the Church!


Partnership, you will recall, was one of the things the Cardinal and Bishop Daly said they would be stressing at the Synod, and in fact it's one of the subjects touched on in their joint statement. What a pity that the whole Synod wasn't based on this idea: an exploration of the potential of partnership between the ordained and unordained within the great universal 'laity' which is the People of God. It would have been infinitely preferable to the fervid search for, and expatia- tion on, 'special' lay elements in mission and ministry and spirituali­ty, as well as 'distinctive' roles and states of life.

I am not indeed suggesting that there is nothing to be said about the mission and ministry of the unordained: there certainly is, and this has to be a main task of the Synod. But it's something to be worked out in the existential situations of the Church throughout the world today, rather than be derived from a 'theology of the laity'. There can be no theology of the laity that is not a theology of the whole Church.

I have already quoted from paragraphs (21,68) of the Instrumentum Laboris which specify 'laity' in contexts which clearly apply to all Christians. The point becomes absurdly obvious in statements like:

The laity bring to the world the faith, hope and charity of the Church (par 20) or

. . . the laity are to strive to overcome the pernicious separation between professed faith and daily life . . . (par 28).

Only the laity? If I were a cleric I'd be insulted by the first of these remarks, and rather puzzled by the second.

Throughout the document there is an emphasis on the 'secular character of the laity' which allows them to accomplish 'in a special way' the salvific mission of the Church in the world, bearing witness to their belonging to Christ, while dealing with temporal things (par 28). This is in itself to be welcomed as reflecting the Church's new 'self-awareness of her mystery and mission in the world' (par 12) — and as paragraph 31, recalling the special place of the laity in the world, remarks: 'If respect for their secular character is kept in mind, the grave danger of clericalism' the laity will be diminished' (my italics).

Well, I for one have no desire to be clericalised and I can't off-hand remember any layman or woman who does. Nor do I see any 'grave danger' of this happening. Mind you, it's not the first time I've been blind to dangers threateningly visible to my betters (political as well as ecclesiastical). The opposite danger, in this instance, is, we are told, 'marginalisation' - and this does make sense, though more as experience than threat — an old unhappy experience summed up in Talbot's notorious question: 'Who are the laity?'


Those days are gone, we hope for ever. The laity are clearly there and won't go away, nor indeed does anyone suggest they should. But I have to say that talk of 'clericalisation', especially as something counter to the 'laity's mission in the world', makes me somewhat uneasy. I suspect that some at least who write or speak in these terms are using a kind of code to express concern, anxiety, annoyance at what is seen as encroachment by lay people on the ministry of the ordained, and a consequent devaluing of that ministry. Sometimes the code uses less subtle terms, such as 'sacristy laymen'.

These concerns and attitudes are by no means confined to Ireland, any more than those lay statements and developments which apparently have come to engender them. But I gather that, as far as this country is concerned, what was said and done at the Pobal Conference - o», rather, what was perceived to be said and done there

-      has triggered off unmistakable reactions in certain quarters. The suggestion appears to be that these 'unrepresentative' but noisy laity, instead of getting on with their real job in the home, the 'workplace'

   the big world in general — want to play at being clergy and running the Church.

I am certain that an unbiased reading of the Pobal statements, as published, will show how ludicrously far from the truth this is. But it is true that what emerged loud and clear from the deliberations of the conference working-groups (on which the statements were based) is that these lay people want to be the Church in their world, fully and consciously, making use of whatever gifts they have been given to exercise their various ministries in the light of the Spirit. As a corollary of this, they insist that they should be involved in parish and diocesan decision-making, and they go on to say that 'through this involvement, the desirable partnership between the laity, the ordained ministers and the bishops can be made practical reality.'

No, they don't want to 'run the Church', but to have a part in it. Again, on the question of worship, they have this to say:

Aware that we have the right and duty because of our baptism to participate fully in public worship, many of us lay people feel angry and frustrated that, twenty years on, Vatican IPs vision of active participation by all in a renewed liturgy is still far from full realisation. The gifts which lay people can bring to a liturgical celebration are under-valued and under-used . .

The paragraph ends: 'There must be a full and equal role for women.' Elsewhere it is stated that 'within the Church women have been patronised and excluded from the decision-making process. This results in their experience of being devalued.' And again, very cogently, 'The Church is impoverished when women are denied equality and their gifts are stifled.' (It was good to hear from Bishop Daly that he has ruled in his own diocese that all commissions and committees must be at least fifty per cent composed of women. And the Cardinal has made similar arrangements in Armagh.)

Now, does any or all of this add up to a threat to the ordained? Clearly not, and perhaps the tables could be turned on myself as the one who sees shadows where no realities exist. Indeed I wish this were true. But I cannot purge my perception of the emphasis on the laity's 'mission in the world', and the stated concern over 'clericalisation'. And it gives me no pleasure to say that what I hear coming through is something like 'You people look after the world — leave the Church to us.'

Again, I hope I'm wrong. Even if I'm right, I'm far from attributing unworthy motives to those whose concern is real, though I would hold mistaken. I regard the opposing of Church to world as being as wrong-headed as that of lay to clerical. We are all the bos, and surely we are all in the world. If not, where are we?

What is the Synod?

On the evidence of the last few pages I hope I won't be accused of writing a 'Begrudger's Guide to the Synod'. It's not what I set out to do. But I think it is only right to point out that expectations are not high. It's certainly a good thing that they shouldn't be too high: an exaggerated view of what the Synod might or could do, can be of more harm than good. We have had this in the past, notably in the early days of the institution, when some starry-eyed enthusiasts saw it changing the face of the Church overnight. In fact, while its potential is real, so are its limitations. It is not, repeat not, a mini- Council. To quote the useful documentation which Jim Cantwell gave us at the news conference:

The World Synod of Bishops is a permanent, consultative canonical body which meets at the invitation of the Pope to advise him on matters relating to the teaching, structure, mission or discipline of the Catholic Church.


There are other limitations, which are structurally pretty wellinevitable: I'm thinking of the 'representative' character of membership. Whatever system is decided upon cannot please evervone, although this one seems to me a reasonable compromise between a strictly mathematical allocation of'seats' on a population basis and a simple 'one country (or conference) one vote' system: thus Ireland has two representatives as against four from the United States, out of a grand total of 231 bishops. There are special arrangements for the eastern (uniate) churches and the religious orders, and, as well as heads of Curial 'departments', there are thirty Papal nominees (including representatives of Opus Dei and Communione e Libemzione) - the Pope is, in fact, President of the Svnod. The 'Relator-General' (or Moderator) is the Archbishop of Dakar, Cardinal Thiandoum, and there are three 'special secretaries': the Coadjutor Archbishop of Bordeaux and two lay people — one a Portuguese lady jvho works with the Pontifical Council for the Laity in Rome, and the other a Frenchman who lives in London and is, of all things, head of the Channel Tunnel Consortium ... I can anticipate a plethora of jokes about the light of the approaching train!

Otherwise, direct lay participation seems to be confined to the sixty auditors of whom we have already heard. Drawn from forty- three countries, they are described as 'nominated by the Pope'. They include Patrick Fay of the Legion of Mary (as noted above); from England, Ms Patricia Jones, a theologian working in Liverpool; Sr Helen McLaughlin, Mother Genera! of the Sacred Heart Order, a Scotswoman living in Rome. Her name, and that of another Sister from America who teaches theology in Los Angeles, remind me once again of Canon 207 which defines the legal status of clerics and lay people. It goes on to say that religious men and women are 'drawn from both groups' - in other words ordained religious are clerics, the rest are lay men and women. The implications of this are interesting: I wonder will there be much discussion on the point at the Synod. It has been give a certain topicality by recent developments in the Franciscan Order (Friars Minor).

A couple of years ago, the Friars (at their General Chapter) approved a proposal 'that the Order be defined as neither clerical nor lay'. This would have made it possible for non-ordained members to be freely elected or appointed to major office in the Order. The proposal was vetoed by the relevant Vatican authority, apparently on the grounds that canon law classifies religious institutes as either clerical or lay. As against this, the Minister General of the Order, Fr. John Vaughn (who will be at the Synod) is on record as saying that, while bound to respect the Vatican's decision, 'we know that by its nature the religious life is neither clerical nor lay.'

Onwards to Rome!

I am as yet uninformed on the details of the Synod schedule, beyond the first couple of days, which will include an Opening Liturgy (at which the Pope, no doubt, will preside) and a first Bxlatio, to be presented by the Moderator, a working paper on which discussion can be based. A series of plenary sessions will presumably follow.

If the Synod follows established precedent, the participants will at some stage break up into circuli minores — working groups representing the principal world languages. As in most such assemblies, thdse smaller discussion-units usually facilitate closer and more practical examination of issues, leading to more or less concrete proposals, which are then given an airing in the wider forum.

As to what the end product may be, it is at this stage almost impossible to say. We can't even be sure that there will be a statement ready for issue by the end of the proceedings, particularly since 'the function of the Synod is to advise the Pope', not to make decisions. But one would expect a document of some substance to be promulgated at a fairly early date.

In the long run, what we are on about is what I like to think of as the Plain People of God, whose plainness is transformed and transcended by that communio of love to which we have been called. To quote Denis Carroll:

The idea of communion is vital. Communion is about relationship and sharing: in love, loyalty, equality, participation. It is about service and compassion. It is about treating each other with respect and justice. It means toleration of difference. It implies trust and confidence. It is the opposite of exclusion because of rank or sex or social condition. It roots in the Eucharistic communion and derives its life from the presence to us of the living Christ in his blessed Spirit . . .

Will the Synod in the thirty days of proceedings bring this message to life for us all? Well, as Ivan Illich said when asked about the after­life: 'I should hope to be surprised.'


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